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UNPACKING “From Design Thinking to Systems Change"

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

Peer Review Series:

Invited Contributors: Daniel Engelberg (Canada), Geoff Elliott (UK), Roger James (UK), Piotr Kulaga (Australia), Arvind Lodaya (India), Sunil Malhotra (India), John Mortimer (UK), GK VanPatter (USA),

This document: "From Design Thinking to Systems Change: How to invest in innovation for social impact”, authored by Rowan Conway, Jeff Masters and Jake Thorold, published by *RSA in the United Kingdom and was chosen for NextD Journal peer review as it is focused on the imagined integration of design thinking with systems thinking. Published in 2017 it paints a picture that is looked at closely by the independent peer review contributors.

The purpose of this series is to help readers make sense of complex content on the subjects of design and design thinking, in this instance inclusive of the subject of systems thinking.

The 2017 RSA article raises some valuable questions around this increasingly popular subject. My five frank and unfiltered comments here address what are, from my perspective, foundational issues around the notion of combining systems thinking with design thinking:

  1. Systems thinking is an attempt to do science qualitatively, without the mathematical, computational and quantitative tools of science. Systems thinking can be valuable in combination with mathematical, computational and quantitative approaches. But on its own, it’s a watering down of systems theory, of physics, and of science in general. As such, systems thinking misses the mark.

  2. Because systems thinking misses the mark, any integration with design thinking will miss the mark.

  3. In the proposed approach, the adaptation of systems thinking for a mass audience will probably become another watered-down fad, in the same way that mainstream design thinking got watered down from an upstream creative thinking approach to a formulaic downstream execution approach.

  4. Because systems thinking misses the mark, the article misses the most essential elements of thinking like a system.

  5. Being totally transparent, I will point out that numerous alternate perspectives exist on this subject including my own! For an overview explanation of thinking like a system, please see my publication “Innovation Through Systems Balancing”.

I realize that all of these points require extensive support. This NextD Journal forum is not the right context for diving deeply into this kind of foundational thesis. I submit my comments simply as a prompter to a much larger discussion that needs to be held and one that I would be happy to contribute to.

Simplification is good, over simplification is bad. In this context the “Double Diamond” a universally accepted depiction of the design process is flawed whether or not it is used as the basis user experience design (UX design) between human users, or, for analogue or digital products and service design and innovation.

The RSA paper shows the “Double Diamond” model as a sequential linear process in when in reality the design of (product and services) is iterative often employing depending on the context a range of different techniques including: Concurrentengineering, the use of problem framing, sensemaking, creative problem solving, critical thinking; brain storming and nominal group techniques. Perhaps more importantly the RSA “Double Diamond” model doesn’t explicitly show how divergent thinking leads to the generation of options which have to be designed and evaluated. This often involves Action / Directed Learning, prioritisation and selection of options perhaps using NGT / Delphi techniques.

An important question is then: The designed and evaluation of options against what performance measures that constitute success from a customer perspective including which customers; individuals, groups or segments?

All customer purchasing /buying descions is a multi-attribute trade off process, e.g., price against quality. All products and services can be described in terms of 1000s of attributes both functionable and non-functionable. From a “customer perspective” only some matter because they contribute directly to the “consumers” perceived need and user value. Different customers/groups/segments will always place a different emphasis on the few product/service attributes which are important to them at a given point in time.

Other attributes matter because our knowledge of the technology and engineering tells us they might fail. The rest we kind of take for granted! All attributes, known or unknown, have the ability to “kill” the product/service if they get too far out of control. From a designer’s perspective some attributes have to be maximised relative to the competitors and the cost attributes have to be minimised relative to competitors irrespective of the consumers worldview, musts, wants or needs.

The RSA paper presents several misunderstandings and partial view of Systems Thinking (ST) as a route to customers and markets, seemingly taking a lead from the work of Donella Meadows. Meadows represents an important but only a small part of the ST landscape which includes writers such as: Beer, Checkland, Churchman, Vickers, von Foerster, Bateson, Ashby, von Bertalanffy, Jackson, Ackoff.

Statements such as:

· “Thinking like a system means taking a holistic view”

· “Different kinds of problems require different methods of systems analysis”

· “Finding ways around the system”

· “Systems thinking unveils the frictions that inhibit change, the veto points and countervailing forces that combine to create this system immune response”

· “problem definition”

Such statements illustrate misunderstandings and a partial view of the Systems Thinking landscape.

What are systems?, what is a system?” The answer to these questions is not simple, not because this term circulates only in specialised language but because, in ordinary everyday language we speak of, for example, a linguistic system, legal system, political system, economic system, bureaucratic system, productive system, industrial system and so on. A system can be something:

• Tangible, e.g. a car, train, a process

• Intangible/conceptual, e.g., a mental model or world view (Weltanschauung)

• Or, unknown systems which I need to learn about

Checkland hit the nail on the head when he said: “Thus the use of the word “system” is no longer applied to the world, it is instead applied to the process of dealing with the world. Experience shows that this distinction is a slippery concept which many people find very hard to grasp. Probably because embedded in our habits is the way we use the word “system”

"Indeed, the selection of a definition of "system" is a design choice, because it is the designer who is the chief figure. In other words, whether or not something is a system is regarded as a specific choice of the designer" Churchman, C. West; The Design of Inquiring Systems.

Alternatively, Vickers, talks about resisting our urge to view organizations/social systems in terms of “systems”. One underlying theme in Systems Thinking is that the whole is more important than the parts. This brings into question – who is defining the whole? Systems are theoretical constructs rather than real entities in the world – there is no such thing as “The System” unless one is talking about a tangible “closed” system which can be engineered. In this sense the RSA paper does not explicitly address the issue of open and closed (deterministic) systems

ST is not a single thing, method or methodology; it is both a meta discipline and also transdisciplinary making use of ideas and concepts from all the sciences including sociology. ST covers a wide continuum where on the one hand people dominate a problematic situation and its setting, too, on the other hand, things dominate a problematic situation and its setting. A systemic approach can be applied across all domains to tackle what is perceived as a simple, complicated or complex problem.

There is a difference between thinking about systems which can be analysed and engineered and thinking in systems aka systems thinking. ST includes holistic and reductionist thinking, sensemaking, diagnosis and synthesis and the use of problem structuring methods (PSMs) as opposed to be the RSA focus on just problem definition. Wicked problems have no solutions just options where each option is sub optimal and remain ambiguous and elusive. In both cases tame and wicked problems lend themselves to the use of PSMs and sensemaking.

Tame problems can be quite complex and can change before description is completed particularly where people dominate the problematic situation and its setting where the principles of functioning are partly unknown and description are elaborate with many details. As opposed to tractable, technical, clockwork (mechanistic) systems where the principles of functioning are known and the “system” does not change while being described. It is well worth referencing Ackoff on purposeful and on purposeful systems - Systems and Models (parts and wholes): Deterministic, Animated, Social, Ecological.

What is a simple, complicated or complex problem is a description afforded by an observer and not an intrinsic property of a “system.” It can be argued, however, complexity is about purpose of the whole and the role of the constraints that relate the parts to each other and the whole, in other words, a design problem and contextual. Too quote: “The distinction between complex and simple systems is normative. Human devices and decisions regularly convert complexity into simplicity.

It is worth making a distinction between systems that are complex and those that are merely complicated (Allen, Tainter & Hoekstra 1999). "Complexity arises from uncertainty about system / design specification”. THELOSS OF NARRATIVE TEH. Allen, A.]. Zellmer, and C.]. Wuennenber

Multiple perspectives always exist and who is to say I am right or wrong when I label a problem as “simple or complex”. However, it is interesting to view the work or Lindstone and Mitroff whose research indicates that some people will always take one very specific world view irrespective of the context. The RSA paper presents a context free approach to innovation and the use of ST and in particular the question of boundary setting and judgements including sources of motivation, knowledge, legitimacy and underpinning assumptions. CSH (an ST approach) makes problematic ‘the situation perceived to be problematic’, so as to help practitioners / designers see through their underpinning assumptions and points of reference.

In conclusion, all new products /services to be successfully introduced require an implementation strategy and plan including a risk plan and performance feedback mechanism. In other words, the involvement of classical marketing and brand management. This appears not to be part of the RSA “Double Diamond” model!

I worry about expressing a view on any ‘grand theory’ of innovation which can only belong to academics and consultants with the time and possible exposure to multiple examples of innovation in practice. However what I read in the RSA document does not really correspond to my experience of over 40 years (as a working scientist, inventor and patent holder).

My experience is that successful innovation is much less planned (with a capital P), more dependent on unmanageable circumstances and altogether messier than any single simple linear model would suggest. My choice of reading on the topic is much less the clinical models chosen here and much more the life lessons from Kay on Obliquity, Busch on Serendipity, Vickers on Appreciation and Stanley on The Myth of the Objective.

Systems Thinking introduces the fundamental distinction between a Closed System, to be managed by prescription, and an Open System, such as innovation, to be managed by adaptation.

My fear is the authors developed their ideas from listening to too many winner’s tales – a partial truth distilled into a categorical myth by constant re-telling and distorted by the ego stroking process of public recognition. The greatest innovators are humble and grounded, they talk about luck as much as method in their life stories or as Richard Feynman would assert “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”.

The process of myth-making changes the same act of a hunch muddled-through in your twenties to become the decisive strategic move when spoken of in your forties.

Of course the principles presented in the RSA report have their place in innovation – such as the Double Diamond framework for innovation and the use of Systems Thinking to navigate the route to market. My more ‘laissez-faire’ interpretation of successful innovation does not mean that good management is unnecessary or structured process irrelevant.

It is to make the point that the gaps, ambiguities and unmanaged circumstances are necessary for successful innovation and are to be encouraged. Innovation thrives in niches and exploits the tolerances of our institutions and social structures and this is where we should look and it is what we should ‘manage’.

Seminal research in Pharmaceutical innovation demonstrated that trust in the leading scientists were the critical measure of success – their manager’s view was “I don’t understand what they are doing but I trust them to do it

The sub-title of the report – how to invest for social impact – lays the foundation for a better theory of innovation but does not get the attention it deserves. The report identifies the key issue “with other interventions aimed at preparing the system to support the innovation. For example, in order for a service innovation to flourish, you may need to push for a complementary governance innovation”. The practice of System Thinking is not limited to identifying the likely blockages but provides insight into the nature of the blockages and the ways around them. As the leading Systems Thinker Russ Ackoff explained problems can be solved, resolved, absolved and dissolved. However the RSA reports details only a single perspective with a focus on problem solving – only part of the story. In reality Figure 4 “The Linear Fallacy” is more suggestive of a “Single Perspective Blindness”.

A productive duality, from the practice of serendipity, bridges the different worlds of the planned campaign and the chance circumstance to work together – in Pasteur’s maxim “chance favours the prepared mind”. Instead of viewing the institutional and market processes as fixed and a barrier Systems Thinking reveals their true properties and the behaviours that can be used to attack, side-line, embrace and avoid them. There are many different approaches to raw cunning and for those looking for a structured introduction the principles of Subversion Analysis in TRIZ suggest routes to game the system to get the outcome you desire.

The other misleading perspective in the paper is the one-sided determination of success, a Closed System world view which suggests that the only factor is the excellence of the innovation. The Open System perspective recognises the necessary co-evolution of an innovation with the market or social context it serves requiring an Open System adaptive response to the social opportunities.

The Closed System view of innovation is, to coin a phrase, ‘the sound of one hand clapping’. The RSA paper particularly disappoints in the references to the work of Clay Christensen. His landmark and most famous work on ‘Disruptive Technologies’ recognised and explored the success of insurgent technologies by their use of ‘niche’ markets. Disruptive innovators followed a pattern of launching often inferior technology protected from the fierce competition of incumbents.

The path to entrepreneurial is to identify, understand, cultivate, co-evolve and navigate through these protective market niches. It is axiomatic that successful innovations are based on a novel idea but it is their engagement and evolution with the market niche which brings the entrepreneurial success.

It is the challenge of growth through ever expanding market niches which bedevils the progress of many of the potential unicorns of British industry and on which the authors of the paper, the RSA and the SBRI should be paying attention.

Piotr Kulaga (Australia)

As a designer with a deeper history in Systems Thinking than Design Thinking and an advocate of synergies in theory and practice between these disciplines, the recommended fusion of methodologies should present a compelling proposition. This very perspective however, also exposes a masquerade of inconsequential techniques, seemingly staged to validate a legacy of biases in a strategy of outsourcing civil service functions. In particular, working around predefined endpoints, in effect politicised objectives, casts serious doubt on a sense of integrity behind the research and its findings.

While there is ample evidence for both, pull factors for Systems Thinking in the UK public service and expert advice for increasing systems competence in the sector, regrettably, the path taken by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) appears technically flawed, as well as betraying indifference to the contradictions presented by underlying motives.

In effect, a cacophony of technocratic legacy, buzzwords and preconceptions of efficiency inherent to an entrepreneurial mindset and can-do agency of private enterprise, is positioned as a superior version of the failing privatised procurement model for delivery of government services. Ideological dogmatism aside, the RSA with support from Innovation UK, propose the ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ model to make the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), an existing pre-procurement programme, fit to address the complexity and unpredictability of social challenges.

The prescribed ‘fix’ asserts adoption of a superficial combination of ST and DT methodologies, to be both, effective in that challenge and feasible in the specific context. This intent, despite contrary indicators in this setting, e.g. a tendency for resistance, a phenomenon known as ‘immune response’, recognised by the report, additionally seems to rely on somewhat misguided interpretations of aforementioned theories, as well as a flawed assumption of context-free conceptual modularity. In a nutshell, the current reality of SBRI initiatives starts with government departments identifying specific challenges, which are turned into public competitions, at which point bureaucratic procedures kick-in, evidently serving various technocratic and political interests. In other words, it represents a chain of discretionary processes and opaque judgements, unlikely to lend themselves to validation, audits or accountability, in addition to being grounded in naked assumptions and uncontested biases.

“As a demand-led policy, SBRI aims to address one of the main challenges for early stage technologies – finding that crucial first customer”, overlooking the fact that notions of a ‘market’ and ‘customer’ are completely synthetic, given the economic scenario at play. The proposed fusion of ST and DT positions a ‘systemic approach’ as a framing for the first stage of the double-diamond representation of DT process, which is then followed by a ‘competition’ and in turn, the winner develops and delivers the chosen solution.

If the idea of strapping-on a “missing first diamond” to the SBRI competition process wasn’t fraught with conceptual and practical ambiguities, the transplant isn’t actually a DT stage, but a surprisingly vacuous abstraction of ST orientation. Paraphrasing RSA, it is assumed that “entrepreneurial hacks” emerge in late phases of the process, but commissioners need to set a vision to give a sense of the commercial support and ‘market making’ beyond the competition demand, in order to foster wider market uptake.

This dubiously rational function is realised by scrambling the dynamics of double-diamond transitions through divergent and convergent activities, and in effect losing the key inflection point of a project at the problem definition stage. Further still, defining failure tolerant iterations as explicitly confined to the ‘second diamond’ (develop and deliver) imposes counterproductive confines on the nature and process of validation, isolated from and practically removed from the conceptual domain. In other words, this rendering of a supposed Systems Thinking component, rather than constituting a suitable alternative for the ‘fluffy’ empathic and creative activities of the early stages in DT, represents a path for top-down imposition of aspirations and/or values on a non-participatory and counter-emancipatory process of decision-making in project fulfillment.

From the Design Science point of view, this proposition not only represents a false economy of design, but a recipe for obfuscating errors of intent – the very essence of potential for insistence on doing the wrong thing.

That is, in this form Systems Thinking seems “operationalised” for competence in talking about the significance of a right problem definition, the problem situation and power dynamics at play, in order to confidently walk the path of prejudices and assumptions of what “empowering and human-centered, rather than divisive and dehumanizing” means in context of “making commercial markets for innovations and delivering social impact at scale”. Sorry, but I’m calling bullshit on RSA.

Arvind Lodaya (India)

In my view the article was too long and needlessly complicated. The suggestion to incorporate/integrate systemic perspective and ideation into 'design process' is valid and useful - but the attempt to package it into another IDEO-like 'framework' is clearly coming from a marketing/packaging need.

This report is a Masterclass on how to ‘conflate and confuse’ design thinking and systems thinking by proposing a very cleverly labeled, "Think like a system, Act like an entrepreneur", solution that is desperately seeking a problem. The report branding also creates the expectation of something new and unique, but falls woefully short and ends up being repackaged snake oil.

The following quote sums it up accurately—

“… as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”

—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Page 5: “This might suggest a need for a human-centred industrial strategy, one that takes tackling the real problems faced by ordinary people as a core metric of success rather than solely economic growth.”

Anthropocentric approaches are one of the main culprits of present crises. We need to discard the idea that economic success is the only way to measure progress. We need a new currency for value exchange. We need to discard this self-serving, anthropocentric ethos. Our human-centricity, combined with an efficiency-driven approach to problem solving, prevents us from routinely comprehending that our activities create externalities and that it is time—

  1. To replace industrial-age analytical, mechanistic and reductionist mindset, with systems thinking,

  2. To discard anthropocentric approaches to give way to planet-centric design, and

  3. To create new forms of research to deliver information that includes interdependency within complex systems,

—instead of the ‘human-centred industrial strategy’ being advocated by the authors.

Page 8: “While design thinking alone provides a compelling process for idea development, it fails to recognise that without due consideration of systemic complexity and power dynamics, even the best ideas can lie on the shelf unused, and thus without impact.”

This is a fractional, if naive, understanding of the scope of design thinking. In my view, this presumptuous, if irresponsible assertion by the authors reflects their own superficial experience with design thinking approaches in the real world. Their understanding that the scope of design thinking is no more than ‘a compelling process for idea development’ is naive.

Page 9: Innovation is about impact, whether shown through market success or, in the case of many social innovations, by the change that results.”

Over-simplistic thesis that uses tautological argument as proof. The report is based on the flimsy assumption that “innovation is about impact”, and fails to support its claims with relevant information. Building a robust case through research needs much more rigour.

Page 13: “Each actor monitors the state of the system with regard to some important variable - income or prices or housing or drugs or investment - and compares that state with his, her, or its goal. If there is a discrepancy, each actor does something to correct the situation.”

The central idea of systems thinking, that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, is destroyed. Isn’t design thinking supposed to consider this at the outset and hence bring all stakeholders together in a mode of radical collaboration? Assigning monitoring and controlling his or her ‘turf’ (read domain expertise) can only create more parts. This is the antithesis of systems thinking.

Page 18: "To progress to practical action, innovators must use systems analysis as a platform for action as opposed to paralysis."

The great paradox. Holistic thinking can't come from reductive reasoning.

Page 20 onwards is all marketing spiel for SBRI, not worth my time.

This article purports to help those who work with design thinking, to help them to move past the current boundaries of what they consider their role. It describes that design is not solely about technology. It highlights complexity and its impact. It talks about systemic change. It describes the gap between the designer and the decision-makers, that is found in the ‘immunity to change’. Therefore the article does address fundamental issues that affect design thinking today.

The article starts from design thinking that is born from the private sector and from product design. That is reflected in the double diamond model. The article then develops the double diamond to focus on other design methods in areas of organisational change;

1. Non transactional services

2. Change within the organisation itself

The elements in this article contributes to helping designers understand and adapt to this difference, but it does come from a position of problems rather than services. Within organisations, systems thinking has recognised that the paradigm of complex adaptive systems helps us to understand the way that decisions are made, and how knowledge flows. This article moves the designer in that direction, by describing aspects of systems thinking and in acting like an entrepreneur. Although these are described in a basic sense in the article, it is focused on problem solving. For those new to these areas it introduces the concepts and points for further enquiry. It would have been welcome to also read about how this applies to services that designers may be focused on, as often problems and service design contain the same enquiry.

The additional first diamond, is one that brings in systems thinking and sense-making, which if done well highlights systemic understanding how the whole service works through a systemic lens, or how a problem manifests itself. This then sets the scene for the re-evaluation of the decisions and design intent and methods, through a reframing of the challenge of re-designing. This then allows the designer to continue through the double diamond. However, the double diamond tends to be interpreted as a process, and the reality of complexity and systems thinking is that design is iterative and recursive. It may be preferable to have pulled this fact out further, and offered the chance to redefine the remaining diamonds.

One of the practical aspects of change and design that is relevance to design thinking is the ‘system immune response’. An important factor for anyone involved in the design of organisations is the clash between the old and new ways of thinking. The elements of soft systems thinking, boundaries, and co-design can be used to address this immunity response. And therefore raising it in this report is a worthwhile contribution.

The description of systems thinking in the article are primarily ones that are simple and based on systems dynamics. There is reference to power and mindsets, but the question is the authors could have gone further. There is opportunity for further incorporation of systems thinking to help designers move towards understanding and using systems thinking into aspects that are already present in other areas of design. This would include boundaries, multiple perspectives, and systems thinking principles and how they contrast to those that are prevalent in design today. This fundamental omission of those principles is perhaps the greatest value addition that could be made into this article.

In conclusion - bringing systems thinking, complexity and business acumen together is an important task. Introducing this and making it happen is by no means a straightforward nor one-off activity, and outside of the scope of any one article. As long as this is realised, then for beginners in these subjects, the article can provide needed discussion to enable this change to move forward.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a high flying marketing document! If I had to choose less than ten words to describe in overview this RSA document on the subject of design thinking those words would be 1. aggressive, 2. optimistic, 3. presumptuous, 4. superficial, 5. myopic, 6. isolated, 7. misinformed and 8. misinforming.

As a practice-based reviewer one might ask: When does misinformed become misinforming? This is for me the central question, the central issue around this three author RSA document. In this era of self publishing it is a question that probably applies to numerous other documents coming from many different directions, including from the unregulated, wild-west design thinking and systems thinking communities.

Since none of us have endless amounts of time I will keep my comments here brief and focused on the process related aspects of the RSA document.

1. Perceived rising complexity of challenges is not only an important topic today but it is one that the emerging practice community has been focused on for some time. By 2017 numerous perspectives existed around how best to rethink designerly methods in the context of rising complexity and not all of them focused on the rather idealized integration of what was often being depicted as systems thinking. In part that was because for some in the emerging practice community, key aspects of systems thinking were/are already inside, not “design thinking” but rather strategic design. There is little reflection of this context or what it took to move away from the assumption-boxed methods of conventional design thinking in this report. Nor is there any recognition in the document that systems thinking has been around for decades and has, on its own, largely failed to catch fire among organizational leaders. From a journalistic perspective, some realistic, broader context stage setting would have been helpful to many arriving readers.

2. Tying this report on this important subject to UK Design Council Double Diamond method was a catastrophic blunder that undercuts all the other messages in the document. If there ever was a poster child for miopic method creation, ignoring years of established knowledge, surely UK Double Diamond is it. Among other missteps, it has been known in the *CPS community for at least 50 years that no innovation process contains only two cycles of divergence and convergence. It's no secret that numerous 6-8-10 cycle processes already exist in the practice community. To suggest building a future on that lack of understanding is a recipe for continuous titanic miscalculations. There is a lot going on in the emerging practice community related to methods redesign and complexity that has nothing to do with Double Diamond.

3. There is virtually no realistic assessment, articulation or discussion regarding the limitations of present day designerly methods in this document, a strong signal that its intention is marketing, not community sensemaking. Regardless of its high flying title, readers are greeted with standard industry marketing spin such as “The Double Diamond method developed by the [UK] Design Council is a widely recognized way to deploy design thinking.” At best this is Design Council fantasyland stuff that does not belong in any important, future-oriented strategy document. Certainly the combined subjects are ripe for sensemaking. The RSA document represents a sensemaking opportunity, some might say responsibility, that was largely sidestepped and lost. If the opposite of sensemaking is complexifying, this is the landing zone of the RSA document.

4. I found the focus/prioritization/curation in the document to be perplexing. If I was to make a list of pressing challenges facing conventional design thinking methods as they might apply to complex contexts and systems thinking on that list would not be mastery of the Everrett Rogers Adoption Curve, Cultural Theory Domains, the Cynefin Guessing Framework, or the SBRI Competition Process. If your organization has interest in migrating to more complex contexts, those are the least of your problems. The curation seen in this document is, at best, naive, from far left field, sending the false message that the needed evolution away from assumption-boxed design thinking methods (product, service, experience) and towards a combination of two complex knowledge domains is a nearly completed walk in the park, which it is not. It’s a little like readers sensing they are about to be hit by a bus but then the authors are saying oh look over there at that cool sunset! The curation of models in the RSA doc is completely off the mark, signalling denial on multiple fronts.

5. The central visual model of Double Diamond in the document is fraught with a tiresome and shocking lack of understanding, misinformation and misinforming, including basics such as its depictions of what activities constitute divergence and convergence. No wonder so many readers of this subject are confused. The authors seem to be unaware that multiple (5-10) diamond process models have existed in the innovation enabling community for decades.

Sid Parnes tabled the foundational *CPS five diamond process circa 1971. Vast lessons have been learned in the practice community in the decades since it first arrived. None of that appears in this document. To be positioning a 3 diamond process model as radical innovation in 2017 is a strong indication how far off in the weeds this document is.

6. In addition to Double Diamond, the other process related model rather oddly embraced in the doc has its own set of misfires.

The RSA authors seem to be unaware that in the innovation enabling practice community we keep in mind that systems are not the same as problems/challenges. Confusion, not sensemaking arises when the two are conflated.

Guessing at categorizing systems and framing problems/challenges are two different things, two different exercises, two different skill sets. While numerous problem scale guessing frameworks exist in the marketplace, it is quite a significant leap of presumption, to be overlaying practice categories and procedure scripts.

It is not difficult to recognize that Table 1 in the RSA document is a hodgepodge of apples, oranges and helicopters, derived from a consultants theoretical model. It seems unlikely that the RSA authors are aware that it’s been known for some time in the practice community that there is no fixed relationship between much of what appears in the original model or the derived Table 1.

There is no fixed relationship between “Clear” situations, “Best Practices” and the procedural prescription of “Sense, Categorize and Respond”.

There is no fixed relationship between “Complicated” situations, “Good Practices” and the procedural prescription of “Sense, Analyse, Respond”.

There is no fixed relationship between “Complex” situations and “Emergent Practices” and the procedural prescription of “Probe, Sense, Respond”.

There is no fixed relationship between “Chaotic” situations emergent practice and the procedural prescription of “Act, Sense, Respond.”

One organizations’ “Emergent Practice” might be someone else’s well-worn “Good Practice”. At best those are artificial, thorectical, force-fit constructions. Certainly "experimentation" is not limited to so called complex and or chaotic situations.

The Figure 1 extrapolations create more confusion upon confusion as in the derivative Double Diamond itself. The combined result is at the opposite end of the spectrum from sensemaking.

In addition, the logic of examining ‘cause and effect” is applicable to contexts where the systems are visible and not to the context where the challenges are yet unknown and undefined. The ‘cause and effect” logic is from the “looking at systems” school of systems thinking and not from the “thinking in systems” school of systems thinking.

Since this RSA document purports to be on the subject of systems thinking the appearance of those considerable muddles, visible in plain sight, undercuts rather than strengthens its rather superficial narrative.

7. Truth be told: Among the most important current weaknesses of conventional design thinking methods evolves around propensity for discipline-based challenge framing as in; a Service Designer's methods recognize and address service challenges. It has been known for some time that this disconnect needs to be addressed to better match up with systems level thinking. It makes no sense to be signaling an interest in systems and complexity while insisting on the narrow assumptions of products and services. This was completely missed in the RSA report and is not addressed by referencing a systems guessing framework. An opportunity to place the need to rethink challenge framing in the context of design thinking, to migrate from discipline-based framing to open challenge framing in the context of complexity and larger systems was completely missed in this RSA document.

8. Clearly visible in several versions of the RSA Double Diamond model are outcomes assumed to be and described as Product or Service. These assumptions reflect the legacy logic underneath this document, presumed to be that of the authors. In complex organizational and societal contexts it is a well known formula for disaster for teams to assume up front, even before any facts are surfaced, that the challenge paths and solutions paths are product and service creation related.

That is assumption-boxed legacy logic being imported from product and service design, here in the RSA document, being repackaged as if this connects to the future of a reconsidered open frame strategic design. It does not. Adding buzz words like “social impact” does not change the built-in limitations of assumption-boxed methods.

That legacy logic represents a narrowing of design, and not its emerging broader future. In spite of an investment by many it really makes no sense for an entire community to handcuff itself around product and service challenges.

Lets gear up for the realization that the future of reimagined design methods is not anchored to the logic of products and service as business outcomes. In the big picture sense the emerging future of design / design thinking cannot be dictated by manufacturers. It's up to the design community to do the work to create a future that is worthy and useful to our communities and our planet not just business interests. This RSA document misses that bus entirely.

9. As my friend Geoff Elliott often points out on LinkedIn: Systems thinking is a giant subject containing, not a method but rather many different streams of logics, tools, theories and strategies. It would be fair to say that what much of the design community has in mind under the banner of systems thinking is a tiny subset of the larger subject. Some of the terms near and dear to systems thinking such as second order thinking/perspective are arguably already inside human centered design under different terms and models but certainly a discussion is warranted across the spectrum of overlapping and missing concepts. As in the design communities embrace of anthropological logics it seems likely that a hybrid version of systems thinking is what will, for better or for worse emerge. There needs to be a meeting of the minds around what is even meant by systems thinking in designerly contexts. Clearly both design thinking and systems thinking could use some clear definitions applicable to this evolving context, none of which are found in the RSA document.

10. Last but not least, I did notice that referencing in the document was a tad off considering it is coming from an institution called the RSA Action and Research Centre. Among the many references seen in the document there are none to CPS pioneer Sid Parnes, the originator of the circa 1970s five diamond model. I was further surprised to see that not even Bela Banathy’s 1996 Designing Social Systems in a Changing World (derived from Parnes) was referenced. Such ommision gets to be rather tiring, not to mention misleading and unfair to others on whose shoulders the document stands. Surely the design community can be more generous, more honest, more rigorous regarding what came from where. There is lots of historical process related knowledge around in the global community. If you don’t know…Speak up & ask!

In Closing: Whether we all like it or not, a case could be made that the RSA document reflects an often seen kind of time-warp thing going on in the design community that remains truly perplexing. Parts of the community seem to be isolated from decades of process related knowledge that exists right next door in other knowledge communities and in some cases has existed for decades. The discombobulated time-warp results in alot of Repeating Starting Point Initiatives including much of this report. Often, instead of moving forward there is a lot of high profile going backwards, reinventing the wheel, presenting old wheels as new and going around in circles. I am not sure if NextD Journal peer reviews of various documents can even make a dent in the design community time -warp discombobulation.

Finally it just so happens that as a sensemaking and teaching oriented practice Humantific does not subscribe to the notion that it’s ok to present misinformation and misdirection to introductory audiences.

I will say from a practice perspective, helping teams grapple with complex multi stakeholder challenges for decades, and teaching those skills to organizational leaders, I did not see much in the RSA document that reflects where the emerging practice community is today or much that is useful to our Humantific practice.

Good luck to all.



*RSA is the "Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce....The Action and Research Centre combines practical experimentation with rigorous research to achieve these goals....The RSA is grateful to have received the support of Innovate UK for this work. Innovate UK is the UK's innovation agency" See more inside the RSA Report.

*CPS is the long standing Creative Problem Solving community of practice, also sometimes referred to as the Applied Creativity community. CPS has a long methods evolution history spanning a period from the 1950s to today. Key aspects of the foundational language of CPS have been incorporated into most leading innovation practices. Key elements including the idea prompter, "How Might We?" used in open challenge framing originate in the CPS community which remains highly active around the world today. See ReAppreciating Guidebook & Truth or Fiction.

Image credits: RSA Report: From Design Thinking to Systems Change, 2017


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